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'Be present': Calmer Choice's CEO on reaching students in a pandemic

Emily Smalley became CEO of Calmer Choice on Jan. 1, after serving four years as chief operating officer.

"Success will look like a continued openness to seek help and support when you need it," says Emily Smalley. "That barrier has virtually been eliminated with the pandemic."

Covid has redefined childhood with remote learning, masking at school and in public, and in many cases getting vaccinated. These changes have tested how young people are managing stress.

At the same time, Calmer Choice in Yarmouth is recalibrating how it reaches students. The mindfulness organization is working to expand beyond the 28 Cape Cod schools it works with now.

On Jan. 1, Emily Smalley became CEO after serving four years as chief operating officer.

Morning Edition's Patrick Flanary spoke with Smalley about the importance of the organization’s work in helping children through these difficult times.

Patrick Flanary: What have you observed about how children are coping with stress and anxiety, versus how their parents are?

Emily Smalley: There’s less stigma now about reaching out for help and support during the pandemic. The isolation and the feelings of being overwhelmed that we saw back in 2020, we’re actually starting to see a little bit of ease on that. Certainly, there’s an exhaustion happening. However, I think there’s an openness and willingness to share experiences and ask for help. And that’s really served well for the parents.

PF: How do you measure the success of these programs and whether they’re working?

ES: I think we won’t be able to tell for a while. I think in the short term, it’s helping reduce anxiety, it’s helping keep kids in the classroom, it’s helping them focus on completing their assignments. It’s helping us all be kinder, I think, and more accepting of each other’s experiences. There’s a lot of empathy-building that’s happened during the pandemic.

I think long-term success will look like a continued openness to seek help and support when you need it. I’ve had parents say to me, “I didn’t want to admit that I was struggling,” or “I didn’t want my kids to see that I was having a hard time.” That barrier has virtually been eliminated with the pandemic. People are much more open to talking and sharing, and showing children by modeling for them that it’s O.K. to ask for help when you need it.

PF: Do you find people are revealing more about themselves and getting things off their chest during the pandemic? Or are they more apt to shut down?

ES: I think we’ve seen people be really open with sharing their own personal experiences, and looking for that opportunity to provide support for others. When we feel helpless, sometimes the best thing we can do is share our stories in the hope that something will resonate with them and help set them on a new course.

PF: I learned a lot from your TEDx Mashpee Women Talk. One of the points you made during that talk was to pay attention to the present moment, with kindness. How do we do a better job of focusing on the now and dispensing with the past and what could happen down the road?

ES: I think that’s the big area where we all live at the moment. There’s all this fear of what’s coming in the future and what will be happening next, and mindfulness teaches us to really be present for what’s coming at us in the moment. We do that by allowing the thoughts to come – we all have them, our minds are very busy. And what mindfulness teaches us is that through breathwork and real curiosity about how we’re feeling we can say, “Ah! There’s that feeling again.” And just let it pass. Instead of taking action to feel like we need to fix things, allowing ourselves to sit with these feelings of struggle and discomfort.

PF: How do we get this into all schools on the Cape? I know Calmer Choice is present in a lot of them, but is it possible to penetrate all of them?

ES: That’s our goal, is to continue to build relationships, to see if we can meet the needs that the schools have. And honestly, they’re facing enormous challenges right now in the pandemic. So our strategy right now is to say to our school partners, “We’re here when you need us.”

PF: Are we at a point now where the stigma associated with mental health is finally going away? Are people waking up to the fact that we’re all dealing with something in our lives, whether it’s anxiety, depression, alcoholism?

ES: We’re making some good headway. I would say it will probably be a long way off before the stigma is completely gone, but I think the pandemic has a wonderful silver lining of making these conversations more open and accessible. There’s much more willingness to talk about things that we really used to keep in the closet.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.